Apple Without Steve Jobs

I’ve lost track of how many cover stories I’ve read about Steve Jobs’ mysterious illness and his leave of absence from Apple.  The announcement came on Wednesday, and right after the stock markets opened on Thursday morning Apple shares were down 5.7 percent.  Shares recovered Thursday afternoon, but as I write this (Friday Jan. 16th) shares are back down to 80.73.  New York Times reporter Joe Nocera, who has written more than once about his private off-the-record conversation with Jobs last summer, yesterday argued that the time is overdue for Apple and Jobs to tell all (read it here). Also yesterday, Brad Stones wrote in the New York Times “Can Apple Fill the Void?”

A solitary, genius individual, being immortalized as the creative genius responsible for a company’s success. Readers of this blog know what I think about stories like this: they’re always a myth.  Innovation never comes from one person’s genius, and that’s not the way it happened at Apple, either.

It’s well established in the history of computer technology that Steve Jobs did not invent any of the technologies that make Apple products famous.  The Apple II was not the first personal computer.  The MacIntosh was not the first windows-and-mouse computer.  The iPod was not the first portable MP3 player.  And the iPhone was not the first Internet-enabled PDA (I love my iPhone but I had almost all of the same features three years earlier on my Palm Treo).

What distinguishes Apple products is not their technical innovations, but their superior design and their focus on the user experience.  (I’d never want to give up my iPhone and go back to my old Treo!)  People say Jobs was responsible for the emphasis on design at Apple.  But Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of design thinking for decades.  IDEO (and its current CEO Tim Brown) have been promoting “design thinking” for years.  Stanford created an interdisciplinary design-oriented school known as the d-school.  Is it an accident that a company like Apple, profiting on these same philosophies, happens to exist down the street from IDEO and Stanford?  I don’t think so.

There are good reasons, however, for a company like Apple to propagate the myth of a legendary and gifted leader. The same thing happens in big science laboratories, where the assembled postdocs and graduate students have a vested interest in the reputation of the professor that they work for (you can read about this research in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity).  Thomas Edison created the public image of a genius inventor largely for publicity and marketing purposes (historians have known for years that Edison didn’t invent, it was the inventors that he hired who did the inventing).

Steve Jobs is important for Apple in the same way that any gifted and talented CEO is important for their company.  I believe his skills are a uniquely good match for what Apple has needed in recent years.  But his importance is not due to his creativity, or to his unique gift for design.  Apple’s creativity and its design sense are collective, organizational qualities and don’t reside in any one person. Any time you hear someone telling a story about an indispensable genius, you should get suspicious, and start looking for the real story.

Check out my other blog posts about Apple by searching for “Apple” at the upper right of this screen.